Entrepreneurs

This 38-year-old went from his mom's basement to making six figures as the NFL’s go-to sneaker artist

It was one of the most unlikely finishes in NFL history: Down by a point with five seconds left on the clock, Minnesota Vikings receiver Stefon Diggs caught a miracle toss, keeping his team's playoff hopes alive for the 2017 season.

As he ran into the end zone, securing Minnesota's place in the NFC Championship, it'd be easy to miss that Diggs was wearing a pair of customized Nike cleats, the blue and purple artwork inspired by the cover of the rapper Future's latest album.

A week later, when the Vikings suffered a blowout loss that left the team one win short of reaching the Super Bowl, Diggs was again wearing a pair of personalized shoes, this time featuring 'Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'

Dan Gamache may be one of the few Vikings fans who noticed Diggs' footwear — but as the artist who painted the cleats, even the loss had a silver lining. Gamache, a top sneaker artist and founder of Mache Custom Kicks, has grown accustomed to seeing stars like Diggs wear his work during big moments. But this time he was witnessing it in person, from the sidelines, and it felt like a crowning achievement.

It was a testament to how far he'd come.

Dan Gamache celebrates the Vikings' 29-24 victory over the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium to reach the NFC Championship.
Dan Gamache |
Dan Gamache celebrates the Vikings' 29-24 victory over the Saints at U.S. Bank Stadium to reach the NFC Championship.

Just a few years prior, Gamache was scraping by painting shoes in his mother's basement in Poughkeepsie, New York.

"When I was in my mom's basement I didn't think anything like this would ever happen," the 38-year-old tells CNBC Make It. "I never thought [sneaker art] would be a business … it was [just] me being a guy that loved shoes and loved art."

But a business is exactly what it's become — one boasting a client list that includes NBA stars LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Steph Curry and Anthony Davis, as well as other top athletes in the NFL, MLB and WWE. Diggs sported a new pair of cleats from Gamache nearly every week this season.

Working meticulously, Gamache can crank out up to 100 pairs of custom shoes in a week from his tiny makeshift art studio in Milford, Connecticut. In 2014, annual sales at Mache Custom Kicks crossed the six-figure mark and have since doubled as of 2017. Due to his rising popularity, he now has a six-month backlog for new orders.

Mache Custom Kicks founder Dan Gamache holds a shoe he painted for WWE wrestler Miroslav Barnyashev, better known by his ring name, Rusev.
CNBC
Mache Custom Kicks founder Dan Gamache holds a shoe he painted for WWE wrestler Miroslav Barnyashev, better known by his ring name, Rusev.

Growing up, however, this was never the plan. Gamache used to dream of being the athlete wearing the cleats.

"I was a little chubby kid and hit the ball really far," he tells CNBC Make It. Scouts at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York offered him a scholarship to play baseball, and he was all but guaranteed a shot at the big leagues when three MLB teams lined up workouts for him. But a torn rotator cuff his senior year changed all that.

"Baseball, at least as a career, was done," Gamache says of the injury. So he shifted his focus to getting an art degree. He'd always taken graphic design classes, but originally "only enough to be eligible to play baseball." Luckily for him, the innate talent he says he inherited from his grandmother, a former art teacher, carried him through to graduate.

Dan Gamache (no. 99, pictured center) attended workouts with representatives from the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds before injury derailed plans to go pro.
Dan Gamache |
Dan Gamache (no. 99, pictured center) attended workouts with representatives from the New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds before injury derailed plans to go pro.

The problem was, Gamache didn't see art as a realistic career either. "I always heard the term 'starving artist' and I was like that's never going to be me," he says. Instead, after graduating he took a job his brother got him, working at a school for developmentally disabled children. On overnight shifts, he'd read whatever magazines were laying around and stumbled on an article about custom-painted sneakers.

"Just being a competitor, naturally I was like I can definitely do better than that," he recalls. Using leftover paint and brushes he had from school, he grabbed an old pair of his own white sneakers and gave it a shot. "It was a lot of trial and error. Whether using the wrong paints, doing the wrong prep — I didn't know what I was doing."

One of Gamache's first attempts at painting sneakers resulted in these Beetlejuice-inspired Nike Dunk Highs.
Mache Custom Kicks
One of Gamache's first attempts at painting sneakers resulted in these Beetlejuice-inspired Nike Dunk Highs.

But pair by pair, Gamache got to a point where he felt comfortable charging others for his work. He'd put his finished product up in his local barbershop with business cards and charge $50 to $75 for custom paint jobs. He started to get a following and client base.

"There was a time where all the barbers were wearing my shoes and [people] were like 'Oh, who did 'em? Oh, the white boy,'" Gamache recalls. But being known as "the guy who paints sneakers" in Poughkeepsie was just the start. In 2008, Gamache set his sights on Pharrell.

While on tour with Kanye West, Pharrell planned to make an appearance at a New York City store for his streetwear brand, Billionaire Boys Club, before a concert. Manhattan was just a two-hour train ride away, so Gamache decided to take a day off from work to hand deliver to Pharrell a pair of Reeboks personalized with his portrait.

The Reebok Ice Cream Board Flips Gamache painted featured a portrait of Pharrell. The shoe he chose was a collaboration between Reebok and the singer.
CNBC | Andrea Kramar | Mache Custom Kicks
The Reebok Ice Cream Board Flips Gamache painted featured a portrait of Pharrell. The shoe he chose was a collaboration between Reebok and the singer.

"It was a risk because, you know, you're getting paid $12 bucks an hour, and I'm like, 'Oh my God I might get fired because I just went to New York City and stood in line all day to get this dude a pair of shoes,'" he says.

After waiting in line for hours, security at the event began to turn people away. Gamache threw a couple business cards into the box with Pharrell's shoes and begged a guard to deliver his gift. Through the glass walls of the store, Gamache saw his shoes eventually make it into the artist's hands.

Pharrell was impressed. Not only did he pop out to meet the man who painted the shoes, he invited Gamache to travel with him to the concert that night at Madison Square Garden and promised to post a photo of the shoes on his blog.

"So now I was known as 'The guy who did Pharrell's shoes,'" Gamache laughs. "It was a big break for that time."

Becoming a Brand

Gamache garnered a lot of press coverage around Pharrell's shoes. But despite a rise in orders and the years he'd spent establishing credibility as a legitimate sneaker artist, Gamache still wasn't ready financially to focus on his craft full time. Instead, he took a job selling credit card processors to local businesses.

But as fate would have it, one of the businesses he was set to pitch was a sneaker store. One of the owners immediately recognized him.

"I'm trying to sell them freaking credit card machines and debit processing in a bad suit that was ill-fitting and whatever, and they're looking at me like 'What are you doing here?'" Gamache remembers.

Instead of walking out with a credit card sale, he closed on a gig to paint a mural at the store's new location. After that, he took a job custom-painting sneakers for the same company at a nearby mall and kept a percentage of the profits from walk-ins.

Dan Gamache painted sneakers in a local sneaker store before leaving to start Mache Custom Kicks from his mom's basement.
Dan Gamache |
Dan Gamache painted sneakers in a local sneaker store before leaving to start Mache Custom Kicks from his mom's basement.

Gamache remembers doing his art right in the front window of the location. "Literally people looked at me painting shoes like I was a pet at the pet store," he says. "It was crazy, but it drew people in."

By 2011, however, nearly all of his orders were coming from a burgeoning online presence. The time had come, Gamache thought, to finally make Mache Custom Kicks his real job. Talking to his boss about leaving only further fueled his fire.

"I remember when I told him I was leaving, he was like, 'Well, you know if the shoe thing never works out … you can always come back,'" he recalls. "That was, for me, like a big 'F-you.'" After that discussion, it didn't take long for Gamache to make the move.

"I just kind of jumped out the window and I was like, I'm going to do this shoe stuff full-time and I moved back in with my mom," he says. "Literally, I would be in my mom's basement churning out shoes until 4 or 5 in the morning."

On Christmas Day 2017, Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball sported custom Grinch-inspired ZO2s painted by Mache Customs Kicks.
Mache Custom Kicks | Dan Gamache
On Christmas Day 2017, Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball sported custom Grinch-inspired ZO2s painted by Mache Customs Kicks.

As the business grew, he went from charging $50 to $75 per job to up to $500 per pair. Before he knew it, he amassed more wealth than he knew was possible.

"As someone who grew up in a trailer you know for most of my life, I was like 'Who's going to pay this much money for this guy to paint?'"

A lot of people, as it turns out — including LeBron James, who came across a pair of custom Lebron X Transformers-inspired sneakers Gamache had posted to social media in 2012. The four-time most valuable player expressed his infatuation, reposting them with with the comment, "I need them ASAP."

When James' assistant tracked down Gamache, at first the artist didn't believe it. "Obviously, I thought it was someone was just trying to hustle me," he says.

Gamache got to work on the custom Lebron X Iron Man-inspired pair that the superstar requested. After shipping delays by Nike, Gamache finished what is still his biggest project to date a night before flying to the 2013 All-Star game in Houston to deliver the finished product.

"I ended up being known as again the guy that did LeBron's shoes," Gamache laughs. "He posted them [on Instagram], and I remember waking up the next morning … and I had like 17,000 more followers than I did when I went to bed."

Since then, Gamache has solidified Mache Custom Kicks as one of the most popular destinations for sneaker customizations. He's racked up over half a million followers on Instagram (without ever paying for advertising, Gamache says) and has started to collaborate directly with brands in their marketing efforts.

In a 2017 collaboration with fashion brand Bicion, Mache customized a pair of Li-Ning Way of Wade sneakers — they had diamonds and sapphires set in 18-karat gold, making them the world's most expensive shoes. Dubbed "The Fire Monkey," the pair had a price tag of $4 million when they were unveiled.

Originally priced at $4 million, the Fire Monkey sneakers are unveiled at a reveal party in New York City.
CNBC |
Originally priced at $4 million, the Fire Monkey sneakers are unveiled at a reveal party in New York City.

Last November, in a separate collaboration with Under Armour, Steph Curry and Microsoft, Gamache customized a pair of Under Armour Curry 4s with Xbox-inspired designs for the launch of a promotional gaming console package.

Focusing more on branded deals leaves Gamache at a crossroads.

"Just as a business move, it's better monetarily," he says. "But I also don't want to alienate those guys who were my supporters 10 years ago." Now that he's working more closely with shoe brands, he's increasingly intrigued by the idea of collaborating on a larger scale — one that could potentially get his artwork down to a more manageable price point.

Painting more intricate portraits, like the ones on these Harambe-inspired cleats he did for Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon, takes more time and commands a higher price point. Multiple portraits on a shoe can push a price tag up to $2500.
Mache Custom Kicks |
Painting more intricate portraits, like the ones on these Harambe-inspired cleats he did for Vikings running back Jerick McKinnon, takes more time and commands a higher price point. Multiple portraits on a shoe can push a price tag up to $2500.

"I know that most of my fans and followers can't afford the artwork that I do," Gamache says. "I want to be able to have some shoes to come out at a regular price that these guys can buy at a Footlocker."

Still, Gamache doesn't see himself hiring beyond the couple of employees he's brought on to help with day-to-day tasks. He prefers to be hands on, from ideation to creation, just as it's been over the years when dealing with average customers and sports stars alike. After all, it's that process that's kept him motivated during his rise to the top. And it's the same excitement he felt as a kid, after saving up his money from mowing lawns and shoveling driveways to buy his first pair of Air Jordan's.

"I got into shoes just because I loved them," he says. "I wasn't thinking of making money off of it, I was just enjoying what I was doing."

—Video by Zack Guzman and Andrea Kramar

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